Expressing admiration for a Catholic pope that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, Southern Baptist leaders praised Pope John Paul II for his opposition to abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and communism.
Baptist Press posted a story over the weekend praising Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who died Saturday at age 84, as a “champion of pro-life and pro-family causes.”
“The pope and conservative evangelicals were worlds apart on theology and doctrine but found common ground on many social issues,” noted the story.
Charles Stanley, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, said John Paul was “probably the kindest pope I’ve ever known in all my years,” according to USA Today. “He’s the only one who’s ever apologized for the persecution that Catholics have brought upon other peoples.”
In Newsday, Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, observed, “John Paul II was the most significant pope since the Reformation, period.”
Such language shows how much America’s largest non-Catholic faith group has moderated from its anti-Catholic roots. It also contrasts with harsh rhetoric during the last two decades against moderate to liberal Baptists, who were purged from denominational leadership in the name of doctrinal purity.
John Paul’s “strong stand against totalitarianism and communism made him a friendly presence for all freedom-living people,” George said. On moral issues like abortion and mercy-killing, “he didn’t speak for evangelicals, but he spoke with evangelicals.”
Meanwhile, George said, “For some of the same reasons evangelicals liked the pope so much, mainliners were distant and suspicious, more aligned with Roman Catholic progressives who saw the pope as regressive.”
That would surely come as a surprise from many figures in Southern Baptist history, who aggressively denounced Catholics.
In the 19th century, J.R. Graves, in the famous missive Remove Not the Ancient Landmarks Which Thy Fathers Have Set, lumped together “Pagans, Papists and Protestants” in opposing fellowship “with corrupt and irregular” churches, chiefly those that baptized infants.
Controversialist J. Frank Norris preached a 1926 sermon series “Rum and Romanism,” which attacked the Catholic mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, and accused him of misappropriating funds to Catholic causes.
Baptist Standard Editor E.S. James drew criticism for accepting an invitation to meet with President John F. Kennedy in 1963. James had editorialized against Kennedy’s election, fearing political ties to the Vatican, but later warmed to the Catholic president after Kennedy took a firm stand for the separation of church and state.
Tension between Southern Baptists and Catholics surfaced regularly over the years in SBC resolutions.
A 1915 resolution on religious liberty viewed “with serious alarm and vigorous protest the efforts of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to gain control of our government, and thereby be in a position to fasten either its faith or fallacies upon the consciences of a free and sovereign people.”
Another resolution in 1944 protested an official statement by Catholic archbishops and bishops against Protestant missionary efforts in Latin America.
Resolutions in 1940 and 1961 opposed taxpayer support of parochial schools. By 1996, however, as more Southern Baptists turned to home-schooling or private Christian schools as alternatives to public education, a resolution on “parental choice” took a position nearly identical to the Vatican’s.
Recent resolutions mentioning Catholics have taken a more conciliatory tone.
A 1996 resolution against partial-birth abortion credited Catholic cardinals with labeling the practice “more akin to infanticide than abortion.”
Southern Baptists in 2002 responded to the scandal over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church by calling on one another “to build and maintain relationships and practices of integrity and fidelity to God and others.”
A 1997 resolution on Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics urged dialogue and cooperation on social issues, while insisting on Southern Baptists’ right to evangelize among Catholics without being accused of “sheep stealing” or proselytizing.
The mood change prompted a reaction among some conservative Baptists, who feared convention leaders were getting too cozy with Catholic doctrine.
The Southern Baptist Convention entered official dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church in 1971, issuing four reports before talks were suspended in 2001. George attributed the stoppage to a small faction of Baptists that had “a strong and somewhat strident reaction against this,” adding that “ecumenism is not a high priority for most Southern Baptists.'”
A 1996 SBC resolution on Southern Baptists and ecumenism warned against the “portrayal of denominations as barriers to be overcome on the road to unity” and said “true biblical unity can only be realized in the bond of truth, and never at the expense of biblical truth.”
The resolution urged SBC agencies to avoid any “organizational or long-term relationship which would risk possible compromise of historic distinctives or the unique witness of Southern Baptists to the world.”
Two SBC agency heads were among signatories of a 1994 document entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” They later removed their signatures under pressure, but said they were doing so only to prevent misunderstanding and not because they disagreed with the statement in principle.
One of the document’s principle authors, Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, said Pope John Paul’s focus on ecumenism was a hallmark of his papacy for Protestants.
“The pope’s willingness to reach out to Christians outside of the Roman Catholic faith was critical to promoting unity across the Christian family,” Colson said in Religion News Service. “His vision, his determination, and his loving spirit will be missed by Christians around the world.”
Praise from the SBC leaders glossed over views of the pope they don’t share. He opposed the war in Iraq. He believed Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians worship the same God as Christians. He taught that Christians should not seek to evangelize Jews. He defended science and evolution and said non-Christians can be admitted to heaven.
Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recently was quoted as saying he has more in common with Pope John Paul II than fellow Baptists Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
According to Baptist Press, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, recalled meeting the pope twice and exchanging gifts—the pontiff gave him a rosary and received from Patterson a Criswell Study Bible.
“While it would be difficult to imagine two people talking together with a theological divide as wide as the ocean and still finding much in common, this is exactly what transpired,” Patterson said.
Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler once called the Roman Catholic Church a “false church” and the papacy an “unbiblical office.”
“As an evangelical, I believe the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel,” Mohler said in 2000 on Larry King Live. “I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.”
In a Monday Weblog, however, Mohler was more charitable.
“By any measure, John Paul II was one of the most influential figures on the world scene, leading over a billion Roman Catholics worldwide and exercising a significant influence on world affairs during some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century,” Mohler wrote.
“We should be unembarrassed and unhesitant to declare our admiration for John Paul II’s courageous stand against communism, his bold defense of human dignity and human life, and his robust and substantial defense of truth in the face of postmodernism.”
In the end, Mohler said, “evangelicals should be thankful for the personal virtues Pope John Paul II demonstrated, and for his advocacy on behalf of life, liberty and human dignity. Yet we cannot ignore the institution of the papacy itself, nor the complex of doctrines, truth claims and false doctrines that John Paul II taught, defended and promulgated.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.